Lev Raphael's Huffington Post Blog
7 Best Small Press Books of the Decade - December 27, 2010
Even with major changes in publishing, far too many reviewers still focus on books published by major houses. It's a sort of default position, possibly due to unconscious prejudice against independent publishers, or maybe even laziness. Who knows? But independent and university presses have been putting out books every bit as good as those published by New York's major houses. They typically don't get the same media attention or the same space in bookstores, so here are some of the best small press books of the decade.
Waiting on a Train by James McCommons. If you've ever wondered why our train system doesn't even measure up to that of some Third World countries, this is your book. The Michigan author spent a year taking trains in every part of America to interview passengers, bureaucrats, politicians, and everyone involved in a system not remotely living up to its potential. A fascinating, must-read journey for the next decade.
Read the entire article at the Huffington Post.
Why Amtrak runs late
by Eric Curren
The Amtrak train that connects my Virginia town to Washington, DC normally runs four or five hours behind schedule. This is apparently perplexing to the European tourists who dutifully arrive on time for their scheduled 1 p.m. departure. At least they get the best benches in the station waiting room. They also get plenty of time to enjoy those seats before the locals drag their suitcases in at 4:30 or 5:00 to catch that day’s Amtrak Cardinal bound for DC’s Union Station.
Whenever I ride Amtrak I hear different explanations on why the trains always run late. “Bush hired an Amtrak board that hated trains and tried to starve the system to death”; “the tracks are old and dangerous and the trains can’t travel at full speed”; “passenger trains have to give way to freights and let them pass.”
While all three explanations are correct, the biggest culprit is freight trains, according to James McCommons in Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service–A Year Spent Riding across America.
Coal cars first, people second
In his year riding trains across America, McCommons found that the US actually has the most extensive rail system in the world, even after half a century of neglect and contraction. But that system doesn’t carry people. It carries freight.
By the 1960s, iconic rail companies like the Chesapeake and Ohio and the Southern Pacific were losing money on every passenger trip, beaten by the Happy Motoring Industrial Complex. This alliance of federally subsidized highways, cheap gasoline, and the power of Detroit pulled passengers off trains and put them into automobiles.
Worried that the operators would shut down their passenger lines for good, a group of rail advocates worked with Congress and the Nixon Administration to cobble together an agreement for the federal government to take over the failing lines. Thus was born Amtrak.
As part of the agreement that allowed them to offload their money-losing passenger service to the federal government, the rail companies handed over rail cars and other equipment, but they retained ownership of the tracks to continue to run freight. The freight operators were supposed to give right-of-way to Amtrak for a fee. But because they suffered little punishment if they caused delays for the passenger trains, the freight operators had plenty of incentive to shunt Amtrak off onto a siding so that their own boxcars could pass.
This system still prevails today. Until something induces freight trains to move aside for Amtrak, your train will almost never arrive on time.
Passengers vote, boxcars don’t
But McCommons writes that passenger rail could make a comeback because of many hopeful recent developments. These range from investment by the Obama Administration to a new understanding by the freight companies of the political benefits to playing nice with Amtrak.
“Passengers vote, boxcars don’t” goes a recent saying in the industry. There’s widespread public support for more and better passenger rail, which could translate into support for pro-Amtrak candidates at the ballot box. And when good rail is available, travelers vote more and more with their feet too and take the train. When gas prices rise, even more drivers leave their cars at home if they can access good rail service.
As James Howard Kunstler writes in his foreword, rebuilding America’s passenger rail system could be a do-able morale builder as we deal with today’s recession while preparing to face the longer term effects of peak oil, what Kunstler calls “the long emergency.”
Even the perpetually late Cardinal has now added daily service from our station to Washington, DC. Now, if they can just get you there closer to when they say they will, then the service is sure to flourish as peak oil kicks in and gas prices begin to rise again.
And whether you’re on a train or not, McCommons’s book is a must read if you care about the future of passenger rail in the US.
Read the original review at Transition Voice.
Passenger Trains: Our Hope for a More Sustainable Future
Saturday, September 18, 2010
by Olga Bonfiglio, http://olgabonfiglio.blogspot.com
President Obama's proposal to spend $50 billion on transportation infrastructure—including 4,000 miles of rail lines—couldn't be a better expenditure of our federal tax dollars.
After spending two days on the Empire Builder, the long-haul Amtrak line from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, I quickly realized that our investment in trains should be readily and heartily embraced. And, if more Americans were to take such trips, I’m sure they, too, would choose trains as an alternative mode of travel.
Amtrak staff was courteous and responsive to passengers, a bit quirky as train people can be, but absolutely delightful while we all traveled the miles and hours together across the country. Riding the train, especially on an overnight, was romantic and adventurous and we kept to our schedule despite the numerous times we had to yield to freight trains.
Actually, it’s a miracle that Amtrak has lasted these past 40 years since President Richard Nixon deliberately designed it for failure. Different administrations—both Democratic and Republican—have either ignored passenger rail or, like President George W. Bush, actively sought to scuttle it.
James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (2009) tells the story about Amtrak and America’s relationship with trains along with some great travelogues of his year-long train trips around the country.
He points out that most legislators who vote on appropriations for passenger trains have never ridden a train, which severely works against Amtrak. Others have been adamant that Amtrak make a profit.
Truth is, there is no public transportation system in the world that earns a profit.
What is clear is that train networks serve as a means to an end, namely, they contribute to an area’s economic development, an idea that is capturing the attention of more and more mayors across the country, especially in this weak economy.
Actually, highways and airports are not money-makers either and the federal government subsidizes them to the tune of $180 billion per year. Amtrak only gets $1 billion. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t realize that a transportation network is one of the benefits of their taxes.
The reason that Amtrak has been short-sheeted is that passenger rail has simply not been a government priority.
After 100 years of moving people within our cities and around the country, trains lost favor because people were sick of the rapacious and corrupt conduct of the railroad corporations. The vehicles were dirty and staff was rude or mean. Ridership had been steadily declining since 1920. After World War II, the nation made a dramatic switch to invest in highways because our roads were poor and lacked connectivity and, well, people liked driving their cars. It didn’t help that the automobile, oil and tire companies conspired—or at least lobbied—against the public transportation system for their own interests as depicted in the 1996 PBS film, “Taken for a Ride” and its 2008 Part II version.
Promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 required citizens to finance the Interstates by paying 15 to 20 percent of the price of a gallon of gas. The 46,876-mile Interstate system took 35 years to complete and cost $128.9 billion. The feds paid 90 percent of the cost or about $114 billion—$425 billion in 2006 dollars— even though the Interstates were under the control of the states. Governors and mayors signed onto this massive public works plan without hesitation because they saw it as an economic development tool for their cities. They would be proved wrong within a couple decades.
As more and more people needed and bought cars, they found themselves stuck in more traffic jams and having to contend with endless road repair. Operating an automobile amounted to $6,000 to $7,000 per year (outside its purchase) and the accident and death rates related to cars—at least 40,000 deaths per year—were overwhelming.
Building the Interstates in the cities also drastically changed urban life, something Eisenhower never intended and experts never foresaw. Neighborhoods were torn up to make way for the highways. Social stratification and racial discrimination intensified as middle class white people migrated to the suburbs and left poor people and minority groups behind in the cities. Downtowns that were designed for pedestrians became congested places and the influx of cars made them frustrating to navigate. Old buildings were demolished to create surface parking, which then created gaping, ugly holes in the cityscape. People felt unsafe and increasingly reluctant to go downtown. Retail moved out to the suburbs and the companies eventually followed. Of course, all of this out-migration ended up depleting the tax base and making ghost towns out of our once vibrant and prosperous downtowns.
By the late 1990s transportation engineers and analysts began questioning the Interstate’s “externalities” as they costed out pollution, energy waste, land disruption, accidents, time wasted in traffic jams. They also learned that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add highway lanes and interchanges didn’t relieve congestion.
The airlines tried to make up for their operational costs with reduced legroom, poorer air quality and overcrowding. Greater demand for air travel also necessitated building or expanding airports, which all takes up a lot of tax dollars.
With the 1990s came new attitudes toward cities and toward the environment. Young people and empty nesters found cities a “hip” place to live and began moving back. They reduced their car usage and demanded more public transportation options. People started a movement to restore historic buildings and revitalize their downtowns.
Meanwhile, rail advocates were keeping Amtrak alive, albeit by a thread. Among them was Gil Carmichael, a former highway lobbyist, owner of five car dealerships and an airport charter service. He later founded the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver where he advocates for what he calls Interstate II.
Interstate II involves double- or triple-tracking 20,000 to 30,000 miles of mainline freight railroads, establishing corridors for high-speed trains and eventually electrifying the trains to replace diesel engines. Carmichael estimates this could all be done in 20 years for two cents on the motor fuel tax.
“We have this incredible railroad network that goes out all over this land from city center to city center. That's what is so amazing. It's already there,” said Carmichael (in McCommons).
Another idea train advocates promote is the re-establishment of a combined freight and passenger rail system through private-public partnerships that work with state transportation departments. Dedicated passenger lines have a multiplier effect that can relieve traffic congestion, reduce freight bottlenecks, diminish flight delays, reduce this country's carbon footprint and accommodate people without cars or the means or desire to fly.
When Amtrak was created, politicians, lobbyists and fiscal conservatives really wanted to deep-six passenger rail altogether within two years. It was only through political wrangling and arm-twisting that train advocates were able to save passenger rail by separating it from freight and calling it Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. That did not mean, however, that it would be efficient, well-funded or make a profit despite Nixon’s caveat that the new railroad be off the government dole as soon as possible.
The United States has never had a vision for an integrated railroad network nor has it adequately funded one, says John Gibson, vice president of Operations Research and Planning at CSX (quoted in McCommons). Instead, passenger rail has been a hit and miss enterprise as Amtrak has tried to put its trains on networks owned and managed by the freight companies.
Could there be a renaissance in trains? Yes, says McCommons, because as the nation’s population increases, as more people decide to lead urban lives and as cities increase in density, it makes sense to use rail—especially with energy costs expected to climb.
“In terms of efficiency—fuel savings, lower carbon outputs, smaller footprint on the landscape—the advantage is really rail,” said Anthony Carbonell of the Lincoln institute of Land Policy in Cambridge (quoted in McCommons). “It has been significantly underinvested in and disadvantaged against the other modes. We once had good train service in this country. We need to recover that capacity.”
The Obama administration clearly sees the possibilities of rail and so it gave Amtrak $8 billion in the stimulus package and another $1.3 billion for car rehabilitation and infrastructure repair on the Northeast Corridor. Vice President Joe Biden, a well-known train buff and consistent passenger during his senatorial days, obviously had a lot to do with this boost for Amtrak.
This is all a good start but we still have a long way to go.
So, ride the train if you haven’t already, and encourage others to ride also, including your congressional representatives. It's a great way to get this country back on track!
Read the original article here.
James McCommons' year-long train ride
August 15, 2010
By Kurt Cobb, Resource Insights
Henry David Thoreau commented at length on the frequent interruptions of his day caused by the whistle, rumble, and hiss of steam-powered trains on the Fitchburg Railroad which passed not far from his house on Walden Pond. The railroad symbolized that commercial "getting and spending" world maligned by Wordsworth in his poem The World Is Too Much With Us.
How different the railroad seems to most of us 150 years hence! As I read James McCommons' compelling account of his year riding Amtrak, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, the memories came streaming in. In the little burg where I grew up just two blocks from my house trains passed every evening around bedtime. The low roar of the diesel locomotives and the syncopated clatter of the railway cars on the track, far from disturbing me, lulled me to sleep.
As a young boy there were overnight trips in sleeper cars on the Denver Zephyr, one leg in the family's annual journey to Colorado for a skiing vacation in places like Vail and Aspen, long before they became exclusive celebrity playgrounds. The observation car provided a geography lesson as the Great Plains gradually gave way to the Rocky Mountains in the dusky twilight. The dining car seemed as exotic as a circus act: A formal dinner in a moving vehicle, who thought of something as neat as that? At night the gentle rocking of the train made me sleep, well, like a baby.
Passenger trains still seemed glamorous and contemporary then. Yet with only 5 percent of the passenger market, they were already lurching toward oblivion.
But McCommons' book is not about the past, but about the future of passenger rail, right? In fact, it is about both. He seamlessly weaves the history of passenger rail in with his artful travelogues as he describes the scenery he sees, the people he meets, and the problems and joys he encounters during a year of train travel that covers nearly every major Amtrak route. These travelogues are an absolute pleasure to read. And, they provide an excellent window on the current state of passenger rail in America today. Frequently, McCommons takes train trips to meet people who are actively shaping passenger rail in the United States. That's the part of the book about the future.
In reading this book it helps to have fond memories of train travel for this predisposes you to look carefully for clues about what might be done to improve and expand service. It helps even more if you have occasion to ride Amtrak today as I do to reach Chicago or visit friends in Minnesota via the Empire Builder. But herein lies part of the problem. McCommons tells us that an astoundingly low proportion of Americans have ever been on an intercity train, less than 2 percent! Only 3 percent use light rail or commuter lines. It's hard to build sympathy for a mode of travel that most Americans have never experienced and may know only from movies or television.
Still, it is indicative of the hold trains have on the popular imagination that many routes have Wikipedia entries. How many airline routes have that! It is this appeal which provides some hope. After all, many of the Amtrak routes which remain today exist only because people in the localities served by those routes fought hard to keep them. Some of the stories are detailed in the book. And, when the Bush administration tried to destroy Amtrak by zeroing out its budget, Congress simply passed Amtrak funding by veto-proof majorities. People want passenger rail.
Now, comes the sticky part. An economist acquaintance of mine has tried to drill into me that we as a society should tax the things we don't want, and let the market sort out what should take their place. If we do that, then the government doesn't need to pick winners by subsidizing anything. In fact, he insists, if the U. S. government would stop subsidizing highway travel, that is, if people were forced to pay the true cost of driving on highways, they would soon flock to rail and that rail would be privately financed because it would be profitable.
He may be right, but I am a realist. I don't think we will ever get a chance to find out if his system would work. Societies have always considered transportation as simply too important to be left to the marketplace--from the roads of the Roman Empire all the way to today's newest airports. And, so perhaps the critical point that McCommons' book makes is that if we want passenger rail to thrive in America, we as a society will have to pay for it. Passenger rail will never be profitable in the narrow sense that businesses are. But it will be vastly profitable to society by other measures: energy efficiency; national cohesion; private development associated with transit; and the comfort, aesthetic pleasure, and sociability that trains offer over other types of transport.
That means we need to focus on making passenger rail so attractive that people will abandon their cars because they think that taking the train is a better idea. And, to do that we will have to invest far more in passenger rail than we do today.
Read the original article here...
Author's study of Amtrak helps explain MARC as well
Professor spent year on rails to learn what works, what doesn't
August 15, 2010
By Michael Dresser, Baltimore Sun
James McCommons isn't a starry-eyed romantic about railroads. He's not a dreamer who envisions Maglev trains racing from city to city at 300 mph or more. But he does think that passenger rail service — that unwanted stepchild of American transportation — is a vital part of America's future.
So he spent a year riding the rails of this country studying how that might be done. Then the veteran journalist wrote a book describing the grim reality of life aboard today's American trains and outlining a vision for how they might be restored to respectability — if not their former glory.
That book, "Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service" (Chelsea Green, 2009, $17.95) makes for fascinating reading for anyone who rides the American rails — whether MARC commuter trains, the Acela to New York or the long-distance Amtrak trains that vainly attempt to stay on schedule on tracks whose owners barely tolerate their presence.
For riders on MARC, the book provides generous background to help explain the canceled trains, the crowded cars and the seemingly ineradicable inefficiencies. If nothing else, it makes for lively reading while waiting for the relief train to show up. The book is written in a conversational, novelistic style, weaving together ruminations on policy and colorful anecdotes about the people he's met in his travels.
McCommons, who now teaches at Northern Michigan University, begins his account of his year on the tracks — many of his travels take him to interviews with industry leaders — with a prologue set on the MARC Camden Line. It's a fitting setting because, as the author notes, it has some of the most historic track in the United States, including the still-remarkable 1835 Thomas Viaduct over the Patapsco River.
While the book pays proper respect to history, its focus is the present state of U.S. railroading and the path to a better future. And the central corporate character in that tale is Amtrak, the national passenger railroad cobbled together out of failed private enterprises in the early 1970s.
If that description sounds familiar to riders of MARC, it should. Like Amtrak, Maryland's commuter railroad was stitched together from the remnants of privately owned lines that could no longer turn a profit. If Maryland is "America in Miniature," MARC is very much Amtrak in miniature.
In an interview, McCommons said that was a valid comparison.
"For some of these commuter services, they're often operating on a shoestring," he said. More than that, he points out, many operate as tenants on tracks with scarce capacity and less-than-welcoming landlords. That is certainly true of MARC, where the Penn Line is owned by Amtrak and the Brunswick and Camden lines by the freight giant CSX.
While McCommons doesn't dwell on the issues facing MARC, he does a thorough examination of the cultural flaws, scarce resources and unreasonable expectations that have plagued Amtrak since its birth.
For decades, McCommons recounts, Amtrak struggled to make real the politically inspired fantasy that it could someday achieve profitability running a system that hadn't made money for its freight railroad predecessors for many years. The more it failed to live up to those unrealistic expectations, the more it met with a reluctance by Congress and some administrations to invest the money needed to maintain and expand aging infrastructure — particularly in the Northeast Corridor that plays host to the Penn Line.
"Amtrak has lurched from one crisis to another, and that does affect corporate culture," McCommons said.
While some have looked at Amtrak's shortcomings and found reason to pull the plug on the entire enterprise, McCommons believes it's not only possible to rebuild it as a modern high-speed railroad but imperative that the nation do so.
"Waiting on a Train" takes readers on a series of Amtrak journeys — some of which illustrate its infuriating inefficiencies and others that show its promising capabilities.
McCommons describes the long hours aboard the Texas Eagle — Amtrak's' worst-performing route — as the train is sidelined again and again to give freight traffic priority. He provides grim descriptions of stations that were once civic gems — abandoned and replaced by squalid trailers — and the poorly stocked dining operations on long-distance trains. By the time a reader finishes this book, he or she will have a clear picture of just how bad life on a train can get.
But the author also seeks out what does work — Amtrak's Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a commuter line that owns its tracks and received the type of infrastructure overhaul MARC has never seen.
Amtrak's operational problems seem to stem from two basic causes: In the Northeast Corridor, it operates a system to which it was granted ownership but never given the money to maintain. (This is the system the MARC Penn Line shares.) Elsewhere, Amtrak operates primarily on tracks owned by freight railroads, which are legally required to keep them open for the passenger railroad but have come to resent that decades-old commitment.
McCommons resists the impulse to simply bash the freight lines. He sees them as a part of the solution, and shows that some of them — including CSX — are beginning to recognize that freight and passenger systems have a shared interest in improving the national rail network. These traditional adversaries, he concludes, need to expand and would benefit from operating on separate parallel tracks where today they often share single tracks in awkward fashion.
"It all comes down to capacity. We don't have the infrastructure capacity in this country to be moving these trains," he said.
Building that infrastructure, he says, will cost billions. And to succeed, he shows, it will take heavy involvement at the state level. Where rail travel is making strides these days, he writes, it is largely a result of partnerships between the states, Amtrak and freight railroads. Many of those partnerships bear a strong resemblance to the long-term expansion plan for MARC devised by former Maryland Transit Administration chief Paul Wiedefeld but put on the back burner by the recession.
McCommons published his book in 2009 in the heady days when billions of dollars in federal money started flowing into rail projects as part of the Obama administration's economic stimulus. Now, with a change in political climate, the prospects for rail are less certain. The game changer, he said, could be the federal transportation bill expected to come up in Congress next year.
"Is this going to be like a one-shot thing and then we're back to the old days?" he asks.
Read the original article here...
Waiting On A Train - Review
Sage Covered Hills
August 2, 2010
During the turbulent year of 2008, a year when gas prices rose to record heights and the economy nosedived, James McCommons spent the year riding Amtrak around the country while speaking to railroad experts about the future of passenger rail services. As he takes various trains, he writes about his experiences traveling and his interviews. Mixed into the text is a brief the history of railroading in America. For a nation that has the most efficient freight system in the world, our passenger system is leaves much to be desired. McCommons describes what happened with passenger rail service in the United States and how we ended up with the spotty system we currently have.
Amtrak was formed at a time when the entire rail system in the United States was nearing a collapse. Railroads were expected to provide passenger service as well as haul freight as a result of the generous land grants and money they’d received to built the roads, but they wanted to get out of the passenger business. In order to shed this responsibility, Amtrak was formed. Each railroad contributed equipment and gave Amtrak running rights on its track. Amtrak did receive some of its own track, the “Northeast Corridor,” which was tracks own by the bankrupt Penn Central which had been formed into another quasi—government corporation, Conrail. At the time, the Penn Central bankruptcy was the largest ever and Congress felt it had to act or it leave much of the northeast without any rail service. In the late 60s, both freight and passenger trains were in trouble.
McCommons explores in detail how the railroads became such a mess. In the 19th Century, the government gave land and money and other incentives to the railroads to encourage them to connect the country. In some ways, railroads can be credited with created the “United States” as steel connected communities across the nation. But as the 19th Century came to an end, the brutal and often monopolistic practices of railroads caused them to be one of the most hated businesses in the nation. During the Progressive Era, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, railroads were highly regulated. As the nation entered the 20th Century, railroads had few friends to help them against the threat of other forms of transportation that were being subsidized. Furthermore, railroads were barred from having any connection with bus services, which was seen as a competition to rail travel, not a complimentary service. Railroads came out of the Second World War with high hopes for passenger service, but the interstate and air travel quickly diminished their hopes. (109-111)
Amtrak, according to McCommons research, was designed to fail. Although sold as a way to make passenger rail profitable, such an idea was a myth. Once Amtrak was created, railroads didn’t have to worry about providing passenger service, and if it failed the railroads would be off the hook.
As McCommons points out, the “farebox” doesn’t pay the cost of operating any of the railroads we’re envious of around the world. Unfortunately, we’ve been sold the line that passenger rail can pay for itself and the debate over such trains in the United States is framed by Congress who sees itself as “subsidizing” Amtrak, while they “invest” in highways and airports. (247) Obviously, such terminology puts passenger trains at a great disadvantage to other forms of transportation.
As he travels the country, McCommons visits with passenger rail advocates and industrial leaders of all but one of the Class 1 railroads in the country. Only Union Pacific refused to meet with him and Union Pacific comes across in this book as being anti-passenger rail. Yet, McCommons was surprised at the response he had from the other railroads who strive to work with Amtrak in providing passenger service. As Amtrak only owns a portion of its track, it has to depend on other railroads for space on their tracks. Norfolk Southern has even pondered the idea of getting back into the rail business. (221) CSX, which has the most passenger service on its system, proposed in 2008 to the US Department of Transportation “Corridors to the Future” Program, a north-south transportation corridor that would run along I-95 with dedicated freight and passenger lines to help remove congestion from the freeway. The Bush-era Department of Transportation only funded highway projects! (254) The Bush family looks anti-passenger rail in this book. George W. Bush tried to kill Amtrak funding throughout his administration and his family is well tied with Southwest Airlines, whose president bragged that he killed a proposed highspeed rail corridor that would tied together Texas three major metropolitan areas. In Florida, Jed Bush also killed a project that would link that state together with high speed rail.
Although McCommons points out the failure of passenger rail in this country, he also highlights several areas where it is successful. He points to corridors which successfully links population areas together and notes that trains can compete with airlines in travel of less than 500 miles. Many of these corridors have developed (Northeast, California, North Carolina, Chicago-Milwaukee, etc). McCommons suggests that for passenger trains to make a comeback, they will need of a nationwide strategy for rail service (that’s not based on nostalgia) and money. It will require new tracks as current tracks are near capacity (CSX noted that if railroads took just 10% of long-haul trucking off the freeways, it would gridlock the rail system). (268)
I recommend this book. Of course, I’m sort of a foamer when it comes to train travel (read the book to learn what a foamer is). Not to brag, but I have ridden all the trains he rode with the exception of the lines in New England. To read some of my train adventures, check out these posts:
The City of New Orleans
The Virginia & Truckee
Train from Musan to Seoul
Late Train to West Palm
Visit the website here.
High Speed Rail's Baseline Scenario
The New Republic
By David Jackson
June 17, 2010
With negotiations ongoing between the federal government and freight railroads over what the rules will be as states plan to implement high speed rail on their tracks, it worth looking comprehensively at the state of passenger service in the nation today and its operator, Amtrak.
There is, after all, $8 billion in play.
Fortunately, author James McCommons has tackled this task by spending a year riding Amtrak routes all across the country and interviewing the regulators, advocates, and businessmen who impact that service along the way.
His book, Waiting on a Train, paints a bleak picture. And it's not just the usual story of passenger trains delayed by freights and car shortages, though those are among the reasons the Coast Starlight, running from Los Angeles to Seattle, is not-so-fondly known as the “Coast Star-Late.”
What’s truly illuminating are his interviews with executives from CSX and BNSF on their views of passenger rail and his exposition of how Federal Railroad Administration regulations slow down the quasi-high speed Acela Northeast Corridor service (hint: it’s not just the grade crossings but also dual locomotives and reinforced floors make these trains heavy and slower than they need to be).
Of course some of the routes he rides will never be candidates for high speed service--if we rigorously analyze costs and benefits and get the assumptions right.
There’s probably too much discussion of Amtrak food in the book, but it’s probably inevitable given a (dyspeptic) year spent in its cafes and dining cars. Here’s hoping high speed service on shorter routes could obviate the need for on-board microwaved sustenance, though perhaps we’ll see a renaissance of the bar car.
Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service
To read the whole review, pick up a copy of RAIL magazine.
Book Review: Waiting On A Train – A Wistful Travelogue And A Call To Action
May 2, 2010
There can be no doubt that James McCommons is a man who loves trains. While he may not be a foamer(the term for a railfan who could be called excessively enthusiastic), McCommons spent a year riding intercity passenger trains around the country and meeting with every important player in the passenger rail industry.
That intercity passenger rail exists at all in this country, McCommons tells us, is nothing short of the miraculous result of a series of compromises, of a political machine bent on killing it, and of small groups at the margins fighting to preserve what remnants they could. Amtrak was founded on the premise that passenger rail, including infrastructure costs, could be profitable, when no such demand was ever made on road or air travel, the infrastructure of which is heavily subsidized. Without specific funds earmarked for Amtrak, every year became a funding battle, and another opportunity for opponents to kill it.
Read the whole article here.
Chattanooga Times Free Press
The Good and the Bad of Train Travel
By Adera Causey
Apr 18, 2010
Trains play a large role in Chattanooga's history. For many, the Choo Choo is the primary emblem of our town. Yet the passenger train is no longer a viable option for daily travel, and the role of trains has diminished, which James McCommons documents in "Waiting on a Train."
A nature journalist, McCommons' research began by happenstance. He was simply a dad interested in taking his 13-year-old son on his first interstate train ride. That ride created a memorable experience for his son and opened his own eyes to the enormous challenges of, and great potential for, passenger rail today.
This led him to embark on a year-long quest to travel the country via rail. Along the way, he met many railroad lobbyists, officials, politicians (including Mike Dukakis -- a long-time rail advocate) and others who have influence over the future of rail service.
He witnessed tragic accidents (in a train that fatally hit a pedestrian), the inconsistencies of dining car food (often not available), cars that were freezing or steamy due to climate control outages and, most of all, he experienced delays. (As the title suggests, much of his time was spent waiting, not riding). He details the successes -- a Chicago route and a Northeastern corridor route (featuring trains built by a branch of our own Alstom) -- and talks about failures in the system.
Read the whole article here.
The Erickson Tribune
America's Passenger Rails: A third-world system?
By Michael G. Williams
While working on a story in 2007, magazine writer James McCommons thought it would be fun to take the Amtrak. He remembers the ride, which took him from Milwaukee to Sacramento up to Seattle, as going really well half of the way and then taking a turn for the worse, ending several hours late with a dining car devoid of food.
The experience fresh in his mind, he returned home on an airplane unable to shake a nagging question: Why is passenger rail travel still like this? He spent the next year or so riding Amtrak around the country to find the answer, which he lays out in his latest book, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Chelsea Green, 2009).
McCommons rode thousands of miles of rail, interviewing passengers, Amtrak employees, and transportation experts, along the way peering through the windows of near-empty dining cars as industrial landscapes, thinly populated burgs, and wind-swept prairies scrolled past. These travels, which included corridors from the Middle Atlantic to the Pacific Northwest, ultimately brought him to the conclusion that America’s passenger rail system is dying.
“We have a third-world train system in this country,” says McCommons, whose father and grandfather were lifelong railroad workers. “Over the last 35 years or so, we really haven’t had any rail policy or put any federal money into it, and because of that, Amtrak has only limped along the entire time.”
Read the whole article here.
James McCommons' "Waiting on a Train" is a Must-Read For Anyone Interested in the Future of Rail Transportation in the U.S.
Because I downloaded James McCommons' Waiting on a Train
to my slow-reading Kindle, I am only 32% of the way through the book (the Kindle advises you of exactly how far you've gone). And that, despite having devoted nearly every minute of a round-trip train ride between New York
this week, and much of the in-between time in a hotel, to reading this important book.
And I can't put it down. Waiting on a Train is the saga that Amtrak has long deserved. It is a panoramic treatment of rail travel, organized according to trips the author took on virtually every single rail line in America in 2008, during which time he also met and interviewed nearly sixty highly-opinionated officials, activists, and journalists who concern themselves with rail matters.
While doing that, he also paints a picture of the America that unfolds to his gaze outside the railway car's windows, and conducts fascinating conversations with the unique Americans who choose to travel by train. Their company, according to McCommons, is itself one of the major reasons for traveling on Amtrak, despite the notorious delays caused by the freight trains that have priority of movement on the tracks that railway freight companies own.
McCommons, first, describes how America, which once led the world in the scope and excellence of its train network, then declined to a point where our railroads barely reach the level of those in Bulgaria
. He tells about all the tragic decisions that led to that calamitous result.
But he then describes and details all the plans that cities, states, and federal officials have for improving and expanding passenger rail travel in our country. A monumental effort is underway, according to him, to restore passenger rail in America. And why? Because the fast-increasing population of the United States, the unsolved fuel issues, the sky-high prices for oil that will inevitably return, the ever-more-crowded highways, the growing need for more freight trains on our already-overcrowded rail system, all mean that the current situation can not be tolerated if we are to remain a first-rate nation.
Read the whole article here.
Exploring the long-ignored—and suddenly important—world of passenger rail.
James McCommons insists he is not a rail fan. This is not uncommon among those who work for, or with, the rail industry. To be a rail fan is to be what actual railroaders call a "foamer." In their extreme form, these are the people who chase trains in their cars while clicking pictures and listening in on train crew chatter with their handheld radio scanners. Police and rail crews often mistake them for terrorists or for some kind of nut. This has created some controversy among foamers themselves about whether the Bill of Rights should protect them from being regularly harassed and sometimes arrested. In December 2008, Amtrak police collared a man named Duane Kerzic and handcuffed him to a wall in a holding cell in New York’s Penn Station for an hour after he refused to delete images of trains he had taken while standing on a public platform; it didn’t matter that Kerzic was clicking away in hopes of winning an Amtrak-sponsored photo contest. The Amtrak police, unable to prove he was a national security threat, nailed him for trespassing.
So I understand why McCommons says he’s not a rail fan. (Neither, I hasten to add, am I.) A real rail fan, after all, would never make the mistake of asserting, as McCommons does in passing, that the pre-1971 California Zephyr ran on the Union Pacific. (It was the Western Pacific, Jim, along with the Rio Grande and the Burlington.) Still, McCommons spent almost all of 2008 riding Amtrak trains back and forth across the country, telling folks he met along the way that he was doing research for a book on the future of passenger rail. Not a bad cover story, and he stuck to it, though he did at times draw suspicion from rail officials when they learned of his travel history. The resulting work, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, is part travel log, chronicling both the horrors and the pleasures of riding Amtrak, and part solid political and business reporting on the rail industry that hardly any other journalist is doing. This is the part of the book that is highly relevant to non-foamers.
Read the whole article here.
Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America
In the 1940s Chicago Union Station handled more than 300 trains and 100,000 passengers a day, writes journalism and nature writing teacher at Northern Michigan University James McCommons. He discusses railroading in America, and, while traveling 26,000 miles by rails in 2008 on such trains as the City of New Orleans and the Hiawatha, spoke with railroad experts, travelers, and employees.
The railroads were at their peak in the 1920s with 1,000 railroad companies operating 380,000 miles of track and carrying 1.27 billion passengers. At the same time, The Pullman Company, inventor of the sleeper car, was the largest “hotel operator” in the world, hosting 40,000 guests each night. John Hankey, a historian and one-time locomotive engineer, said, “The railroad was a reliable, efficient, high-capacity, all-weather, and democratic mode of transportation.” In the 1950's, however, it began to decline as a result of the US government's subsidization of the national highway system, inexpensive oil, and commercial air travel. In addition, the government thought “trains seemed old-fashioned.”
In the current “green era,” however, passenger trains are poised to help solve America's transportation-energy problems. “Passenger trains consume seventeen percent less energy than airplanes and twenty-one percent less than cars for every passenger mile.” Inter-city passenger trains produce half the carbon dioxide per passenger mile than cars and airplanes. Trains are already on track: 28.7 million people traveled by Amtrak in 2008, an eleven percent increase from the year before.
Read the whole article here.
Travel and Trains and Other Things
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The perfect Christmas gift … for YOU!
You like trains? Are you interested in the future of passenger rail in the United States? Or are you just looking for a great read? OK … run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Waiting on a Train … subtitled The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service … by James McCommons. I’m only two-thirds of the way through, but can already tell you it’s a must-read.
The author spent a year riding around the country on Amtrak to meet and talk with a whole variety of people who are, in one way or another, involved with passenger trains.
In one section, he writes about how the freight railroads have differing attitudes toward Amtrak trains. BNSF makes serious and successful efforts to bring Amtrak trains in on time, while Union Pacific …
Well, let me give you one of the more interesting (and almost shocking) paragraphs from the book. In this chapter, McCommons is writing about a conversation he had with Griff Hubbard, a long-time Amtrak employee who is one of the people overseeing the Texas Eagle. The Eagle has a terrible on-time record and, since it runs on Union Pacific track, at one point Hubbard sat down with a UP exec to see if anything could be done to improve things...
Read the whole article here.
Gift Books 2009, Part 1
Travel books for the adventurous:
Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (Chelsea Green, $17.95 trade paper, 9781603580649/1603580646, November 2009). McCommons spent a year riding across America, talking to passengers and railway workers. He writes about the history of U.S. railroads and discusses what should be done today and in the future. But this is also a fine armchair travel book that starts in Chicago and crisscrosses America, with engaging characters along the way.
Library Journal Editors’ Fall Picks 2009
"Attention! Readers of travel memoir, of investigative reporting, those seeking to understand America today, even devotees of fiction of the American journey—heck, simply of fine writing! Look out for James McCommons's Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Chelsea Green. Nov. ISBN 978-1-60358-064-9. pap. $17.95).
NOTICE! Train chasers, railroaders, and train hobbyists, you'll want to chase down this book as well.
DESCRIPTION Height nine inches, approximately 272 pages deep. Instigated by veteran journalist McCommons, who was last seen riding the rails in 2008 on extended trips covering all regions of the country that still permit the possibility of passenger rail travel. As he rides the California Zephyr, the Silver Meteor, the Acela, the Empire Builder, he interweaves stories of the men and women he encounters with an accessible and expertly traced history of America's enchantment and subsequent tragically wrongheaded abandonment of its railroads. In a year when gas prices tipped the $4 mark, the speed and efficiency of freight trains carrying shipping containers became all the more clear. McCommons urges us not to fall back on train nostalgia but to look to the future. He sees the possibility that with increased stimulus support of America's railroad lines, age-old disconnects between freight and passenger rail may at last ease, and we may cease to be “a third-world country when it comes to passenger railroads.” McCommons is the son and grandson of railroad men. He does them proud. Detain his work. Can be found as of November 2009.
Reward The pleasure of reading prose that has the shimmer, strength, and authenticity that our railroads can still inspire and that they may yet attain again."
—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal, Editors' Pick
Are trains slower now than they were in the 1920s?
By Tom Vanderbilt
Posted Friday, May 15, 2009, at 12:22 PM ET
Quick: Can you think of a technology that has regressed since the early 20th century?
Technological progress is usually considered a given. Think of the titters when you see Michael Douglas in Wall Street walking on the beach with a bricklike mobile phone. Then, it was thrilling, almost illicit—Gekko can call Bud Fox from the beach. Now, the average 12-year-old has a far superior phone: smaller, camera-equipped, location-aware, filled with games and a library of music, and so on. We've seen vast improvements in just a few decades, which means the gulf between now and, say, the 1920s seems almost unimaginable.
There is at least one technology in America, however, that is worse now than it was in the early 20th century: the train.
I have recently been poring over a number of prewar train timetables—not surprisingly, available on eBay. They are fascinating, filled with evocations of that fabled "golden era" of train travel. "You travel with friends on The Milwaukee Road," reads an ad in one, showing an avuncular conductor genially conversing with a jaunty, smartly dressed couple, the man on the verge of lighting a pipe. The brochure for the Montreal Limited, from an era when "de luxe" was still two words, assures travelers that "modern air-conditioning scientifically controls temperature, humidity and purity of air at all seasons."
But the most striking aspect of these antiquated documents is found in the tiny agate columns of arrivals and destinations. It is here that one sees the wheels of progress actually running backward. The aforementioned Montreal Limited, for example, circa 1942, would pull out of New York's Grand Central Station at 11:15 p.m., arriving at Montreal's (now defunct) Windsor Station at 8:25 a.m., a little more than nine hours later. To make that journey today, from New York's Penn Station on the Adirondack, requires a nearly 12-hour ride. The trip from Chicago to Minneapolis via the Olympian Hiawatha in the 1950s took about four and a half hours; today, via Amtrak's Empire Builder, the journey is more than eight hours. Going from Brattleboro, Vt., to New York City on the Boston and Maine Railroad's Washingtonian took less than five hours in 1938; today, Amtrak's Vermonter (the only option) takes six hours—if it's on time, which it isn't, nearly 75 percent of the time.
"I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai," President Obama said recently, announcing an $8 billion program for high-speed rail. "I want to see it built right here in the United States of America." There is something undeniably invigorating about envisioning an American version of Spain's AVE, which whisks passengers from Madrid to Barcelona (roughly the distance from Boston to Washington) in two and a half hours at 220 mph and has been thieving market share from the country's airlines.
But Obama's bold vision obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration. Consider, for example, the Burlington Zephyr, described by the Saturday Evening Post as "a prodigious, silvery, three-jointed worm, with one stalk eye, a hoofish nose, no visible means of locomotion, seeming either to be speeding on its belly or to be propelled by its own roar," which barreled from Chicago to Denver in 1934 in a little more than 13 hours. (It would take more than 18 today.) An article later that year, by which time the Zephyr had put on the "harness of a regular railroad schedule," quoted a conductor complaining the train was "loafing" along at only 85 mph. But it was not uncommon for the Zephyr or other trains to hit speeds of more than 100 mph in the 1930s. Today's "high-speed" Acela service on Amtrak has an average speed of 87 mph and a rarely hit peak speed of 150 mph. (The engine itself could top 200 mph.)
What happened? I put the question to James McCommons, author of the forthcoming book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. As with most historical declines, there is no single culprit but rather a complex set of conditions. One reason is rail capacity. From the Civil War to World War I, the number of rail miles exploded from 35,000 to 216,000, hitting a zenith of 260,000 in 1930 and falling by 2000 to less than 100,000—the same level as in 1881. Capacity dropped because demand dropped—people moved to cars, and freight moved to trucks. Despite a World War II train boom fueled by troop movements and fuel rationing, trains have been on the decline since the late 1920s; as a 1971 New York Times article on the debut of Amtrak noted, "railroads asserted that, as an industry, they did not make a profit on passengers after [the] 1930s. They blamed buses, planes and autos and expensive union contracts that increased wage costs after 1919."
Less rail capacity (and rail quality) has coincided with a dramatic rise in freight traffic in recent years, owing in part to a buoyant economy and in part to trains' improving (and now superior) fuel efficiency to trucks—particularly as diesel fuel prices have risen. Despite recent infrastructure spending, bottlenecks are routine, as passenger trains typically yield to passing freight trains. (The recent economic downturn has cut freight traffic, leading to some chatter on rail Web sites about improved Amtrak performance times; one commenter noted, "#422 was running early the whole way ... so much so we sometimes had to sit and 'kill time' shy of reaching stations [so] as not to block main roads through towns.") Sharing rails with freight has a negative effect on passenger speeds for another reason: The rail systems are designed for slower freight trains. Except for the high-speed Acela in the Northeast (and a lone stretch in Michigan), Amtrak is limited to a top speed of 79 mph because to go above that would require all kinds of upgrades to signals, gates, crossings, and ties, among other things. (This Amtrak investigation of a 13-hour delay earlier this year catalogs the typical problems.) What's more, trains themselves can't run faster than 79 mph without "Positive Train Control," a sensor-based safety system that will be mandatory on all trains by 2015.
Hovering over all of these causal factors is a widespread societal shift that occurred, one that saw the streamliners of the 1930s eclipsed by the glamour of the jet age, as well as the postwar automobile boom and the building of the Interstate Highway System. Passenger trains lost their priority to freight, and there simply wasn't the same cultural imperative for speed and luxury on the trains (a condition rather unintentionally satirized in the